All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1960

The Backdrop of American Social Concept

Mr. Gadzikowski is an Instructor in Economics, St. Benedict’s College, Atchison, Kansas.

When the one-eyed Cyclops filled his huge belly with a meal of hu­man flesh and washed it down with unwatered milk, Odysseus and his loyal followers stood in horror, paralyzed by their sense of utter helplessness, and raised their hands to the gods.

Historically, men have always judged and recognized justice and injustice, right and wrong in hu­man conduct. It is true that the concepts of what is just and unjust and of what is right and wrong have depended on the backdrop of each society against which the hu­man conduct was measured. But always some backdrop was there, a stable and deep-rooted pattern of human conduct, stronger and more fundamental than custom.

According to this norm, men guided their lives and judged their actions.

Today, we have come to call these stable and deep-rooted pat­terns of human conduct, institu­tions. They are stronger than cus­tom. They are constant patterns of conduct which proceed from an inner conviction rather than from convenience or convention such as eating with one’s right hand. When various institutions of an age are woven into a personality complex, they emerge as the ideal person­ality of that age, never fully real­ized in any one individual but functioning as a guide in the lives of all.

Reflection upon the backdrop of our current United States so­ciety, the pattern according to which we measure our actions and conduct, can bring one up with a start. The tendency toward, and the problem of the depersonaliza­tion of man, is an insidious one and can go almost unnoticed unless one attempts to understand and interpret our current institutions.

Imprisoned by Organizations

By the depersonalization of man is meant the mechanization of so­ciety and everyday life along a pattern whereby the scramble for material goods and the efficiency of group operation supersedes the individual person’s dignity and worth. If there is any character­istic about man that stands out above all others, it is his perfect-ability. Man is born into this life a tabula rasa upon which each ac­tion of man’s life is recorded. Jaime Castiello, in his work, A Humane Psychology of Education, points out that the subconscious of man is “the permanence of the past in a man’s present; his life’s diary written in his nervous tissue and on the meshes of his muscular fibre.” Each activity of man ac­tuates him more, brings out his being more, makes him metaphys­ically more perfect. Man is made to be perfected by his own activity. Hence, the depersonalization of man means the displacement of his own activity, the displacement of the goal of his own perfection for a goal or goals outside of man.

In today’s United States society, we can see this displacement of man’s activity for that of the effi­ciency of the group activity. We can also see the displacement of the goal of man’s perfection for that of a goal of material goods outside of man. But what is worse, the tendency toward depersonaliza­tion is becoming more and more accepted; is becoming more and more a part of the warp and woof of the tapestry which forms the backdrop of our society. It is pene­trating and permeating the insti­tutions against which we in the United States judge and accept or reject man’s conduct.

If we were to list the various or­ganizations which are constantly bidding for man’s attention and membership, their number would be legion. Today, a man no longer is judged by what he is but by the length of his membership cards when they are laid out end-to-end. Group activity has become a mania.

If we were to list the various material goods which are the ob­ject of man’s fevered acquisitive efforts, their number, too, would be legion. Today a man is no longer judged by what he is but by the home, the car, the wife or wives, and the position he possesses.

What is worse, and this indi­cates the deeply penetrating aspect of the trend toward depersonalization, man himself judges himself not by what he knows himself to be but by what the organization thinks of him and by what he owns or has taken out on credit.

The Key to Self-Improvement

Let us explore some specifics. Man has the right, nay more, the necessity of exercising himself to perfect himself. In no other way can he perfect himself but by his own activity. American business­men—with rare and refreshing exceptions—have remained chil­dren in this matter, expecting the protective “mother image” of the government to coddle them.

The extensive farm surplus pro­grams have been the subject of heated debate for some years. But the argument has nearly always remained on the plane of dollars and cents. Few have ever talked about the challenge and the accept­ance of the challenge by the indi­viduals involved if they are to per­fect themselves. Scarcely anyone has dwelt on the concept of self-activity whereby one accepts the challenge of the business environ­ment and expands himself meta­physically into a greater being through his self-activity. Instead, there has been a general immature stampede to the White House, call­ing upon “mother” government. “You do it for me,” is the saying of a child.

Similarly, United States busi­nessmen have shown an immature cowering in the face of inflation­ary wage demands. Instead of ac­cepting the challenge, all too many have relied upon tariffs and quotas imposed by a “mother” govern­ment to keep them in a competitive market. They passed unto the gov­ernment the solution of a problem which must be handled by their own self-activity, through resist­ance to the unreasonable demands and/or through increments in pro­ductivity in order to maintain their prices on a competitive level. Little attention, if any, have they given to removing the interven­tionism of which inflation is the inevitable consequence.

The American laborer has sold his worth and dignity to a labor organization for less than thirty pieces of silver, in some cases, a few more pennies per hour. Group activity and the efficiency of the organization have swallowed up the laborer. No dissenting voice by any member of the labor or­ganization is expected when the labor chiefs call for a strike vote. Personal views are not and cannot be tolerated when the group de­cides to move. Further, lack of self-activity on the part of the laborer has resulted in an over-all apathy that leads to corruption and racketeering in the labor organi­zations. The efficiency of the organization is everything; the worth of the individual worker is nothing.

This is what is accepted on the United States scene. This is what is becoming the backdrop against which we measure our conduct. Our social institutions no longer reflect the dignity of man and his self-perfection through his own ac­tivity. Instead, the efficiency of the organization swallows up the person.

Nikita Khrushchev boasted that Soviet standards of living would soon excel those of the United States. If his boast were to be ful­filled, it would still be unimpor­tant. The fundamental question will always be that of human worth and man’s freedom to exercise himself toward his perfection.

But in the United States, the people, almost to a one, became excited and frightened by the boast of the Communist Boss. They failed to realize the real question involved because they themselves have merged their concept of themselves and their worth with the possessions they own. They nolonger can think of themselves as divorced from their trappings which we call a standard of living. The tendency to displace the value of the self with the value of the material goods is also a part of the backdrop currently taking hold in the United States. Americans do not think of themselves anymore. “I am an $80,000 home.” “I am an automatic washer-dryer.” We do not say it out loud. But we think it!

This then is the fundamental social problem of the United States. The depersonalization of man is the problem man faces and only he can solve it. Self-activity is the only cure; his own perfec­tion and worth his only goal that will not fail or deceive him. The mechanization of the society of the United States and our every­day living has reached the point whereby we judge the pattern of our actions not by our individual worth and dignity but by the effi­ciency of our group’s activity and the scramble and possession of material goods.




Ideas on Liberty

A Risk Worth Taking

The liberty of going wrong is the seamy side of the priceless privilege of going right by free choice rather than by compulsion.

WILLIAM ERNEST HOCKING, The Coming World Civilization